The Greek crisis: Between democracy & dictatorship?

by · November 20, 2013

Athens Polytechnic uprising 1973

Athens Polytechnic uprising 1973


This is a translation of “Democracy, Dictatorship and Fascism” from the latest issue of the theoretical journal of the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK), Σοσιαλισμός από Κάτω (Socialism From Below).

40 years after the Athens Polytechnic uprising, the debate on democracy is now more relevant than ever. As if one needed to be reminded of this, the Greek government’s decision to re-establish the use of armoured vehicles in the military parade of 28 October was the icing on the cake. The vehicles’ participation was ceased in 2010, as a token of the cleaning up of the Greek state’s budgetary waste. The return of tanks to the streets of Thessaloniki in 2013 (the parade which Greece’s President Papoulias was forced to abandon in 2011) is full of political symbolism: The government wants to “remind” an unruly and radicalised population of the firepower that the state has, simultaneously arousing patriotism of the Right after the recent blows dealt to Golden Dawn.

The dead-ends in which the Greek ruling class finds itself are leading it to flirt with scenarios that for the framework of the Metapolitefsi political system seem unthinkable. Already the famous bipartisanship, the alternation of PASOK and New Democracy (ND) in government, which was the pinnacle of political stability over the past 40 years, has collapsed. During the Memoranda of Understanding* period we have already experienced moments of “emergency”, the most important being the coalition government of PASOK and New Democracy with the far-right LAOS party led by Georgios Karatzaferis, with an unelected banker — Lucas Papademos — as prime minister. But the tripartite coalition of New Democracy-PASOK-Democratic Left (DIMAR) was also a desperate effort to legitimise the policies of the Memoranda with — this time — a pink DIMAR crutch because of the dramatic rise of the more radical left-wing SYRIZA from 4 to 27 percent. The breaking of the tripartite coalition (with DIMAR’s departure) shows that the Greek ruling class is still deep in the tunnel, not only of the economic crisis but also of political instability.

So what happens in these cases of dead-ends? Various pundits have a ready-made answer: “In democracy there are no dead-ends”. In times of heightened crises, citizens are called to the polls to elect a new government. The party that will get the most votes will take office. This is the institutional framework established during the Metapolitefsi, the period after the fall of the dictatorship, since until then the elections were rigged and the “supreme authority” (the King) could entrust the mandate to form a government even to his gardener. This description of democracy is of course good for civics textbooks, but has little to do with reality.

For a party to form a government in the form of a smooth “rotation”, it should have won the minimum confidence of the ruling class (the bourgeoisie, if we talk about capitalism) that it will not jeopardise its rule. Parliamentary democracy, far from being a system where “the majority decides”, is a form of bourgeois rule. Roughly speaking, Marxists have identified three other such forms: dictatorship, fascism and Bonapartism. The Greek bourgeoisie has in the past played with all of these scenarios, and when nothing else worked it unleashed a bloody civil war against the people. Let’s have a look at each of these forms of bourgeois rule, one by one.

Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy is the political form that best suits the interests of the bourgeoisie. This does not mean that historically the bourgeoisie willingly gave universal suffrage to the people (men and, especially, women). On the contrary, it took huge struggles to make this possible. Nor does it mean that the bourgeoisie does not prosper with other political regimes; many times they are indispensable. But it does mean that parliamentary democracy offers the bourgeoisie some key benefits not found in other political systems.

The main advantage is the way in which parliamentary democracy organises the relationship between the two opposed classes — the bourgeoisie and the working class — and the state. The emergence of the bourgeois state is based on the creation of a distinct political sphere in which the unequal collective subjects of class struggle (capitalists and workers) appear as individualised and equal “citizens” — everyone having one vote. The bourgeois state thus appears as relatively autonomous from the opposed classes, even though its essence lies in perpetuating the domination of the bourgeoisie (the property of the means of production and the preservation of its ability to make profits).

Parliamentary democracy offers a dual advantage to the bourgeoisie: Firstly, through the process of electing the government once every four years, i.e. the political heads of the state, it legitimises it among the majority of the population, disguising it as a “neutral state, of all citizens”. A prerequisite for this is to grant elementary liberties to the organisation of those below (or even to organisations where those below can at least see the imprint of their interests). For the working class, there are two main such institutions; its trade unions and its political parties, i.e. the Left. The free function of these organisations is essential to achieving the consent of workers in the operation of bourgeois democracy. And extracting that consensus is crucial for legitimising the rule of the bourgeoisie, the famous “normalcy” which both bourgeois and reformist parties strive for.

There is a second advantage to parliamentary democracy for the bourgeoisie. This is the possibilities it provides to its different sections to influence the state in their own interests by organising parties (i.e. building alliances with other classes under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie), owning newspapers and controlling public opinion, buying politicians, and so on. All those things that in everyday conversations appear as “exceptions” and “failures” of democracy are actually components of its normal and successful function. The bourgeoisie may appear as a single unit in confrontation with the working class, but internally it is divided into differing and competing capitals. Parliamentary democracy is best suited to this multiplicity of bourgeois interests.

But what happens when the democratic system does not ensure the bourgeois rule, or perhaps even puts it in danger? History is relentless on this question: whenever the bourgeoisie has felt threatened, it has not hesitated to blatantly violate the democratic norms that it set for itself. There is no need to refer to Chile in 1970-1973 and the 40 years anniversary of the Pinochet coup against the Allende government. The Greek ruling class opted for a suspension of parliamentary democracy through a military coup when faced with much more moderate political opponents.

The dictatorship …

The Junta of 1967 was the answer to the stalemate of the election of a centrist party, the Union of the Centre, in 1963, and its clash with the King that culminated in the dismissal of George Papandreou from the post of prime minister in 1965. The political project of the Union of the Centre was anything but radical; it presented an alternative organisation of bourgeois rule, equally as anti-communist as the status quo. But this plan conflicted with the political and military complex that won the Civil War but was refusing to voluntarily modernise in the face of the changing conditions of the 1960s. The massive mobilisation that followed the dismissal of Papandreou, the famous July Days (“Iouliana”), terrified the ruling class, which then preferred the certainty of the army rather than resorting to the ballot box.

The dictatorship is, in relation to parliamentary democracy, a “state of emergency” and as such it presents risks and opportunities for the ruling class. First, the materialisation of a coup is open to “accidents”. Let’s not forget that the October Revolution was essentially the result of a failed military coup by General Kornilov in August 1917. In Spain in 1936, Franco’s coup marked the beginning of a bloody civil war that could have cost the ruling class its own power. It is certainly true that most of the time coups are operationally successful; the military power of a state, when it decides to use it, is overwhelming. Especially when this is combined with a movement leadership caught napping, as was the case with the leadership of the Greek Left in 1967.

Once a military coup succeeds, the bourgeoisie can impose its rule without the constitutional luxuries of parliamentary democracy. So every organisation of the movement and the Left is prohibited, the democratic space of collective expression (rallies, demonstrations, etc.) closes down, and the leaders of all sorts of oppositional forces (even of bourgeois parties) are arrested and imprisoned. The Junta responded decisively to the challenge laid down to the ruling class in 1965 by the “street” and the labour movement. The rapid development of Greek capitalism during the years of dictatorship could not take place without the bloody repression of the working class and its organisations, both trade unionist and political.

… and its crisis

However, a Junta can provide no long-term solution to the problems of bourgeois rule. In his 1975 book The Crisis of the Dictatorships (much discussed last year), Nicos Poulantzas offered many insightful remarks as to why this is so. So, while all units of capital had supported the colonels’ 1967 coup as the only way to ensure stability, very soon the dictatorship became a “straitjacket”, not only for people from below but also for parts of capital. As a result, the Junta’s structure started to crack.

The Junta tried to respond by promoting a process of controlled liberalisation. However, as Poulantzas notes for dictatorships, “The very structure of its schemes and mechanisms does not allow a controlled and smooth operation of class representation”. “The elimination of various political organisations of the ruling complex itself (political parties), its rigid mechanisms” meant “an amazing gibberish … which not only precluded any political settlement of conflicts, but in the long term jeopardised the very hegemonic organisation of the bourgeoisie”. In these conditions, “the popular masses and their organisations have turned every attempt for liberalisation into a crack in the regime”, with unknown consequences on how deep these “cracks” would go.

The reformist Left and its intellectuals usually depict the militants of the revolutionary Left as romantics, unable to analyse the conjuncture, waiting for the revolution as deus ex machina. However, reading the texts of the revolutionary Left of this period, one realises that this is a caricature. Revolutionaries had a deep understanding of the contradictions described by Poulantzas. The analysis of Mami (Midwife), the newspaper of OSE (the Organisation of Socialist Revolution) regarding the dead-ends facing the Junta in April 1973 deserves special attention:

First and foremost weakness: the non-existent ideological control of the Junta over the working class … The strong policing role the Junta gives to yellow unions and the absence of parliamentary procedures to politically distract the mass movement … makes the Junta’s state particularly rigid, unable to manoeuvre … And this weakness politicises the mass movement and allows it to see more clearly who the enemy is … Second weakness: the inability of the Junta to mobilise the petty-bourgeois strata as a political prop for monopoly capital, as an ally for the political neutralisation of the labour movement … Third weakness: the inability of the Junta to ensure that all sections of the ruling class have institutionalised communications with their state, collective forms of bourgeois control. By its very nature and origin, the Junta has no institutions — no bridges to the different sections of the bourgeoisie. This, at the point of time when it grabbed power, was its strength because it gave it the ability to act autonomously in critical moments. But in the long term it leads to failure, to the uncontrolled tying of the state with only a few sections of the ruling class, thus sharpening the contradictions within it.

What differentiated the analysis of Poulantzas with that of Mami was a matter of perspective: Firstly, the strength of the mass movement, which Poulantzas underestimated, and secondly the strategy of the Left. So Poulantzas argued for the cooperation of the Left with the part of the bourgeoisie that favoured democratisation: “Were the main resistance groups, especially the communist parties, correct to accept, as all agreed, an alliance with the native bourgeoisie… with the specific and limited goal only to overthrow the dictatorships? The answer is undoubtedly yes.” In contrast, the revolutionary Left said, “No to the ‘nos’ of the bourgeoisie … for the mass movement it is neither a choice between this or that institutional framework the bourgeois erect to perpetuate their domination nor a separation of the bourgeoisie into good and bad.” Such a line did not mean indifference towards democratic struggle. It meant that “the working masses do not restrict their fight to a political attack against the Junta but, rather, because they struggle for their own class content of civil liberties and not for civil liberties as an end in itself, connect this attack with the daily struggle in the workplace.”

The differentiation of the revolutionary Left from the line of the student factions of both Communist Parties (“Anti-EFEE” and “Rigas”) in the Athens Polytechnic uprising was thus not a tactical difference of estimates, but a strategic disagreement: where reformists were seeking bridges to bourgeois democrats, or even worse to the liberalisers of the Junta, the revolutionaries were building the independent strength of the mass movement and appealing to the working class. The Junta may have not fallen after the Polytechnic uprising. But the uprising and the mass movement of the Metapolitefsi determined that the bourgeoisie made ​​great concessions to stabilise its political regime, and the army was forced to go back deep into its barracks (in contrast to other cases, such as that in Turkey).

This relation of forces is still active: To attempt a dictatorship is the least appealing scenario for the ruling class today, because the consequences of such an attempt could be fatal. Former general Frangos Frangoulis — who fancies himself as a new leader of the hard Right — will probably make a career as a political rather than a military leader. It is this dead-end of an authoritarian political solution in the Greece of the Memorandum that partly gives rise to the danger of fascism.

Golden Dawn MP Kasidiaris under arrest

Golden Dawn MP Kasidiaris under arrest


Fascism is itself a “state of emergency,” which shares many of the characteristics of dictatorship. Its establishment entails the abolition of any democratic rights and the ultimate dissolution of all independent organisations of the working class. However, fascism should not be confused with the intensity of state authoritarianism, although most often it occurs in parallel with it, in conditions of social instability and heightened repression.

The differentiating element of fascism, as we have explained many times in this magazine, is its appearance in the form of a reactionary movement or at least as a goal to construct it. Although the core of fascist parties are very often constituted by people interconnected with state mechanisms, their political plan is not to take power through their role in these mechanisms (as would happen in coups of generals, colonels, etc.). Fascism needs to appear as a movement outside — and in the initial phases contrary to — the state. Only with this anti-systemic pose and lots of anti-capitalist rhetoric might it rally in its ranks the destroyed middle classes and disoriented sections of the working class.

The aim of the fascists is to build paramilitary bodies that have independent operational capabilities in relation to the state machine (its police, military, etc.) and gradually control the streets and neighbourhoods. It is the strength of these storm troops that gives fascist leaders the power to negotiate with the ruling class their entry into office, in order to smash the labour movement. When it finally gets power fascism reveals its genuine class nature, which is the most reactionary dictatorship of big capital. However, the construction of an ideological, political and organisational centre (the fascist party) before the seizure of power makes the fascist dictatorship more solid and dangerous, making resistance unbearably difficult for its opponents. This is the special feature that historically rendered fascism capable of the most horrendous crimes of human history, with the most appalling being the Holocaust.

The fact that the Greek ruling class has so shamelessly played the card of fascism is disgusting. The Greek bourgeoisie did not hesitate to turn Ioannis Lagos, a thuggish pimp, into a “statesman” (i.e. a Golden Dawn MP), even though by the end of 2011 intelligence agencies had evidence that could send him to prison. But in late 2011 the Greek bourgeoisie had eyes only for certain opponents: the labour movement that occupied public buildings, the protesters who stopped the military parade in Thessaloniki, and of course the Left. And when Golden Dawn managed to cross the vote threshold into Parliament, the President of the Greek Republic met their Führer and thus sent across the state a message of tolerance and cooperation.

For 15 months, from the election of June 2012 until September 2013, the fascists had their chance to build the reactionary movement that would inflict on the Left the hit that Golden Dawn MP Ilias Kasidiaris delivered live on national television to two Left MPs, Liana Kanelli and Rena Dourou. As Panos Garganas explains in his article in this journal, Golden Dawn failed in its plan, and that a central role in its defeat was played by a massive anti-fascist movement. We have not finished with the fascists and complacency is the worst enemy. But the arrest of Golden Dawn leaders Michaloliakos and Pappas marks a turning point in the fascists’ attempt to play a central role in the political arena. No rhetoric about the “two extremes” and “condemnation of violence” can hide the defeat of one of the most doped, reactionary horses of the ruling class in the present Memorandum conjuncture.

Bonapartism and the authoritarian turn

Last in the Marxist typology of forms of bourgeois rule is Bonapartism. Marx and other Marxists (e.g. Trotsky, or Gramsci when talking about “Caesarism”) used this term to describe situations in which the intensity of the class struggle in a society means the exhaustion of the opposed classes, to the point that neither can the bourgeoisie rule as before nor can the working class take power. The result is that the state turns autonomous and through the emergence of a powerful political figure (a Bonaparte), gives a solution to the conflict, ensuring the continuation of bourgeois rule, but providing some concessions to the working class.

There are analysts who have suggested using the term “Bonapartism” to describe the current conjuncture. However, the obvious problem with this conception is the absence of a Bonaparte (and the notion of “Bonapartism without Bonaparte” doesn’t look convincing). There are other interventions that speak of a “parliamentary totalitarianism” (usually from parts of the anarchist and anti-capitalist Left). These theorisations are problematic: they imply that we no longer live in a bourgeois democracy, but in some kind of dictatorship. However such a description of where we are at is flawed. The battle for liberties and democratic rights is not yet lost. Any other assessment sows confusion and defeatism.

The term “state of emergency” (neither a dictatorship or fascism, nor bourgeois democracy) has been used to describe the growing authoritarianism we experience in Memorandum Greece: intensity of repression, reduction of the role of Parliament and governance through legislative acts of the executive, enforcement of the will of the Troika, etc. While aspects of this description are undeniable, this concept can lead to unfortunate theoretical conclusions. On the one hand, it can beautify bourgeois democracy (supposedly there is a “pure” liberal form), while on the other it can lead to a reformist strategy of pursuing a “stage” that would see a return to a “normal” prior condition.

In fact, what we are witnessing is the crisis of parliamentary democracy as a form of political rule of the bourgeoisie. The depth of the economic crisis and the specific way in which it was expressed in Greek capitalism (debt crisis, inability of the state to borrow, huge falls in GDP, loan treaties with the EU-ECB-IMF, etc.) have meant the breakdown of the previous political system, but with no ready substitute available. The Greek bourgeoisie, faced with stubborn resistance from the working class and the popular strata, burned – one after another – all of its political/governmental cards. There can be no recourse to the army without a huge risk. And it has now significantly weakened its fascist bulldog, Golden Dawn, by being forced to arrest its leaders.

This does not mean that the Greek ruling class will stop its tooth and nail battle to end the crisis and achieve political stabilisation. But increasingly it seems that it will need to do what it wanted so fiercely to avoid: to grant governmental power to a party in which it has much less than absolute confidence, i.e. SYRIZA. This will not be the first time the bourgeoisie abandons the trench of government power to a party that is not one of “its own”, but bourgeois rule is guaranteed by the state, i.e. the trenches and fortifications that stand far deeper than governmental offices.

However, this scenario is dangerous. Not because the leadership of SYRIZA has any extremist intentions, but because it has not secured the control of the movement from below in the manner that, for example, PASOK had back in 1981. From this perspective, the tasks of the revolutionary Left and ANTARSYA, 40 years after the Polytechnic Uprising, are more important than ever. The mother of all fights lies ahead.

*The MoUs are the agreements reached between the EU-ECB-IMF “Troika” and the Greek government on restructuring the Greek economy so it can meet its debt obligations.